Roots & routes

Dante Alighieri

2015 marks the 750th anniversary of the birth of Dante Alighieri, the Sommo Poeta (Sublime Poet) as Italian students learn to call him from early on. His writings include profound essays and enchanting short poems; however, he gained enduring fame as author of the Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), a masterpiece in Italian and European poetry.

Dante’s life was shaped by conflict. In the aftermath of one of the many skirmishes that Florence’s two rival political powers (the Ghibellines and Guelph) recurring in the XIV century, Dante was sent on an ambassa- dorial mission to Rome to help negotiate peace terms. While he was in the Papal States, his own party was defeated and his political enemies seized control of the city, as a result, Dante was punished and eventually banished from Florence. He would never again return home. For the next twenty years, Dante lived in exile until his death in 1321, during which time he penned one of history’s greatest literary works.

The Comedy recounts how, in the middle of his life, Dante finds himself lost in the dark woods of sin and error. In desperation, he seeks to return to the right path and true life in God. His quest takes him through the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise to the beatific vision. Along the way, Dante encounters sinners, penitents, saved souls: some are great and well-known figures from history or from his own time, other humble spirits never known beyond the small circle of their peers. Such a com- prehensive assortment of characters was unprecedented and offers both an insight into Italy’s daily life of the late Middle Ages and a powerful collection of inspiring imageries about what humanity truly is.

What makes La Divina Commedia stand out amongst most poetry before its time is its complexity, condensed in an exceptional capacity to overcome a long-established idea of poetry, which had been revolving around a few simple naturalistic concepts. Dante’s work, instead, is made of many layers. On the surface, the poem describes his travels through the Underworld, but at a deeper level, it represents the soul’s journey towards God. At the end, what is so important about both poem and this fine book is the emphasis on free will and the importance of our moral choices. With God’s grace, we determine our own destiny. The transcen- dental message is so important that Dante’s contribution to metaphysi- cal meditation and religious contemplation has been recognized by the Catholic Church itself, at the highest level. Pope Francis has recently stated that “Dante Alighieri is an artist of the highest universal value, who still has much to say and to give, through his immortal works, to all those who are willing to walk the path of true knowledge.”

Furthermore, credit for the foundation of Italian literature goes to Dante, whose impact resulted in elevating Italian as a noble language of poetry and prose. Before him, the Italian vernacular was seen as dialectal, therefore cast aside as a literary language. Dante, knowing Italy was neither politically nor culturally united, proved Italian possessed the same authoritative features as Latin.

After 750 years we can rightfully celebrate Dante’s immense legacy. His poetry showed no boundaries in its time, nor does it today. The use of Italian instead of Latin and a more than noteworthy technique of combining reveries with realism laid the foundation for the Florentine Re- naissance and the richest future seasons of Italian and European cultural flourishing. Moreover, he left to us a strong political message, paving the way to the ideal of Italian unity, together with a rich religious heirloom. Many scholars have tried to epitomize Dante’s lessons, but I believe that his spirit is best encapsulated in another work of art: Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, “The Thinker”, which is as much of an icon of the strength of the human intellect as the man who first inspired it.

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